A decade after completing a $135 million expansion project, Walker Art Center is in upheaval again. Bobcats and construction trucks prowl its western hillside. Most of the art from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is in storage. And seven top curators and department heads, plus numerous underlings, have resigned in the past 18 months.
The construction and garden projects, previously announced, are part of a two-year $33.3 million refurbishment that will include a new entrance pavilion with a cafe and improved circulation, vistas and amenities. While those changes are long-planned, the departure of so many key staff members at a crucial juncture is unusual enough to have sparked talk about the Walker’s direction.
In conversations, e-mails and online sites, some Walker watchers are expressing concern that it is losing top talent and suggesting that it’s too focused on cultivating its reputation on the national and international scene rather than presenting more events Minnesotans want to see.
“Of course we care about Minnesota and local audiences,” Walker executive director Olga Viso countered last week. “Our whole campus redesign is about engaging our local community.”
In interviews, Viso and her new artistic director, Fionn Meade, responded to the criticisms and sketched out the Walker’s ambitions and goals. They come from a strategic plan, five years in the making, that the center’s board approved 18 months ago, Viso said.
“In these moments when you have real clear direction, purpose and vision, the staff rallies around those priorities or may decide it’s time to move on,” Viso said. “I see it as natural and expected, and would not describe it as an upheaval. We saw departures pre and post the expansion 10 years ago, and it’s not unexpected when you see strong institutional pivots.”
Besides the landscape and building renovations, the plan envisions collaborative, cross-disciplinary programming — a yeasty mix of visual arts, design, performances and “moving image,” as the film department has been retitled. The center will maintain a strong online presence via a staff-curated website that commissions and gathers content from around the world as well as touting Walker programs.
Scholarship to the fore
The Walker has been stirring that multimedia pot for decades, of course. But now research and scholarship will get a big push from international curators, scholars and writers brought to town for conferences, seminars and follow-up publications. Later this month, for example, about 20 artists and curators from the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other mostly East and West Coast venues will gather for two days of talk about “Curating Performance.”
“It’s not just scholarship, it’s scholarship around interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary practice,” Meade said. “This is a distinguishing aspect of the Walker that we can provide that other art museums don’t.”
A film scholar, writer and curator, Meade was hired in May 2014 as the Walker’s first “senior curator of cross-disciplinary platforms.” He quickly took over as chief curator, succeeding Darsie Alexander, who had left to run the Katonah Art Museum in suburban New York.
Five months ago that job was retitled “artistic director” and Meade was given oversight of the center’s collection and all curatorial departments including visual and performing arts, education, design and moving image.
The exhibition program will remain a mix of historical exhibits such as this summer’s “International Pop,” solo artist shows of new talent, mid- and late career retrospectives, and multimedia extravaganzas such as the upcoming 2017 “Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” which will include dance costumes, stage sets, music and performance videos.
“We’ll continue to publish the beautiful catalogs, stage 25 [performing arts] productions and 160 film screenings and eight to 10 exhibitions a year,” Meade said. “The program is as robust as it’s ever been, and that will continue.”
Change often triggers grumbling, even when employee turnover reinvigorates an institution. With the Walker’s prestigious imprimatur on their résumés, most of its senior departees got good jobs elsewhere. Two of the four curators who left are now directors of small museums, while the other two landed endowed curatorial posts at Pittsburgh museums.
“These transitions are neither surprising nor unexpected,” Viso said. “They were anticipated, welcomed and planned in some cases. Others were generational. If the senior curators don’t move, the junior curators don’t have any place to go.”
Until recently only two of the Walker’s key openings had been filled, the education curator and Meade’s position. Four more curatorial hires were announced last week, one a fellowship, the others at the assistant or associate level.
The Walker has long been known as a curatorial training ground. The new hires are likely to rise quickly and move on as their predecessors did.
“We hire great, ambitious people,” Viso said. “That they’re being recruited and moving on is something we’re proud of. We have a role in seeding the profession with leaders.”
Officials say that senior staff appointments will be announced this fall.
The building expansion and landscaping will be done in fall 2016, the sculpture garden renovation finished in 2017.
“This is a really exciting juncture for us as an institution,” Viso said. “There is a lot to be thankful for and a lot that’s coming to fruition very soon.”